There is a lot of confusion out there regarding sulfites and what it means to make a “sulfite free” wine.In reality it’s nearly impossible for a wine to be sulfite free as they are a natural biproduct of the fermentation process
Beyond the fact that they are naturally produced there is the issue of stability. Sulfites are used to stabilize wine against microbial spoilage and oxidation. Without them our wines become much more vulnerable and can potentially have a shorter shelf life.
Why Make Sulfite Free Wine?
By in large there are two main reasons many people opt to make sulfite free wines. First, the belief that sulfites cause headaches. Second, they opt to avoid sulfites in order to minimize the chemicals added to the wine or to make organic wine
Sulfites can cause headaches for people that are allergic to them. It turns out that only about one in ten thousand are allergic to sulfites so this isn’t the source of wine related headaches for most people.
Organic wines usually have to have a minimal amount of sulfites which cannot be added by the wine maker themselves. They are allowed to have that minimal amount because it is a naturally occurring by-product though.
Safe Practices when Making Wine Without Sulfites
If you’re careful and pay very special attention to equipment sanitation you can create a sulfite free wine. Because it does not have the added protection your wine will be very susceptible to spoilage bacteria. Here are a few things you can do to maximize your chances of successfully making a sulfite free wine.
1. Consider Pasteurizing Your Fruit
Pasteurizing involves heating your wine making fruit to a specific temperature for a specific amount of time such that the majority of micro-organisms are killed off. There are two methods you can follow to pasteurize your fruit.
The first is to bring your fruit to a full boil in a pot of water. After it starts boiling remove it from the heat and cool it in an ice bath. The second method involves heating your fruit to 145 degrees Fahrenheit (63 degrees Celsius) and keeping it there for 30 minutes. Again, cool the fruit in an ice bath before moving on. For more information listen to Winemaker’s Academy podcast episode 8.
2. Sanitize all equipment, working surfaces, and your hands very well.
I recommend using a commercial grade sanitizing agent such as Star San. You could use potassium metabisulfite but this does increase your chances of unintentionally adding sulfites to your wine.
While I’ve had success with Star San when making red and white wines I will warn you that one Academy member has had trouble with Star San causing off colors in his white wines. Do your best to let all of it drip off of your equipment and storage containers to minimize the possibility of this happening.
As you know the air around us is full of yeast and bacteria. These would make themselves right at home in your sulfite free wine given the chance. Inert gases provide a buffer between these organisms and oxygen.
For the home wine maker there’s an inexpensive way to do this, Private Preserve. It’s an aerosol can full of inert an inert gas mixture designed for use with wine. One can, which costs about $10, has enough gas to flush about 120 wine bottles.
4. Bottle your wine as soon as you can.
Make sure fermentation has ended and that your sulfite free wine has properly cleared but your wine will be safer and better protected when bottled. By bottling you’ll be reducing the air gap above the wine and creating a much more secure seal once the cork has been inserted.
Final Thoughts on Sulfite Free Wines
Aside from these precautions the wine making process is otherwise identical. The fermentation and clearing processes are the same. You just need to be vigilant with sanitation and limiting your wines exposure to the outside world.
Lastly, I would consider using a synthetic closure that does not allow for micro-oxygenation. Because your sulfite free wine will be extra sensitive to oxygen limiting all exposure seems like a wise thing to do. This may not make much of a difference except if you were to age the wine for a considerable amount of time in the bottle.
Photograph by: US Department of Agriculture (weird right?)